Rafia Zakaria, a Pakistan-born lawyer, feminist activist, and a former board member of Amnesty International, makes her way toward a local community event and fundraiser for international women’s issues: a friend had suggested her name as a speaker on the topic of feminism in Pakistan. To her surprise, she is met by a white woman who admonishes her for not being in her native clothes. She is made to stand in front of a table topped with touristy tchotchkes passed off as handicrafts from Pakistan. Zakaria’s task is to engage the white women donors milling around her and other “native” women in suitably authentic attire and to talk to them about her country and get them to buy the wares. Recognizing this as a demeaning circus, she finally leaves. But not before sitting in her car for half an hour, crying from the force of the humiliation.
The scenario is familiar to many women of color. Black American women often serve as the faces of diversity in left-leaning organizations but are not allowed to actually have a say in how these organizations are run. Foreign-born women are exalted for their exotic authenticity in workplaces and asked to parade it in costume, like International Dolls, but not allowed to speak up. The analyses and political work of such women are either ignored or deftly absorbed, without credit, into organizational campaigns, and they serve no purpose other than to metaphorically or literally do what Zakaria was ordered to do: stand around, look “authentic,” and speak when spoken to.
Such stories are sprinkled throughout Zakaria’s latest book, Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption. In a chapter on “Honor Killings, FGC [female genital mutilation], and White Feminist Supremacy,” Zakaria points out the hypocrisy of white feminists who express shock at such customs but can’t make connections between them and similarly unjust practices in their own culture. She reveals her story: at 25, afraid that he would kill her, she ran away from her Pakistani husband and entered a domestic violence shelter. Her death would have met the Human Rights Watch definition of an honor killing: “The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that ‘dishonors’ her family is sufficient to trigger an attack on her life.”
But, Zakaria points out, “the deaths of any of the white women I met at the shelter who faced the prospect of intimate-partner violence because they had left a man” could also be considered honor killings. “Honor and ego, no one seems to have noticed, are iterations of the same forces of patriarchal dominance,” she writes. Such stories help to illustrate some of Zakaria’s points, but the strongest chapters engage systemic and institutional critiques without relying on our empathy for her. A chapter on “The White Savior Industrial Complex and the Ungrateful Brown Feminist” details an international nongovernmental organization-led attempt in the 1990s to get rid of woodburning stoves in parts of rural India. The stoves had been used by women since 1800 B.C., but reformers decided that woodburning was ecologically problematic (in fact, it didn’t involve cutting down whole trees) and that “clean stoves” would empower women to give up the drudgery of collecting wood and become independent wage earners.
But the women didn’t want the stoves. As the Indian feminist and co-founder of DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era) Gita Sen put it, “equality with men who themselves suffered unemployment, low wages, poor work conditions and racism within existing socio-economic structures did not seem an adequate or worthy goal.” The women were caught in a system that disregarded their actual needs and wants.
While the stories about Zakaria’s life are interesting, one becomes weary of them after a while and longs for more clear analysis. Why is it that a brown Pakistani woman with years of analytic experience as a lawyer and activist must first reveal to the reader her supposedly authentic, private self, her trauma, and her life as a domestic violence survivor? Is such a demand made of white authors?
Kyla Schuller certainly feels no such pressure. Her book, published only a couple of months after Zakaria’s, also bears a provocative title: The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism. Schuller writes:
“Of the factions within feminism, white feminism has been the loudest, has claimed the most attention, and has motivated many of the histories written about the struggles for women’s rights. … The trouble with white feminist politics is not what it fails to address and whom it leaves out. The trouble with white feminism is what it does and whom it suppresses.”
The book presents a series of “counterhistories” in chapters that each feature a pair of people: one a conventionally understood white feminist and another someone whose life and work stand in contrast to the first and who has historically (according to Schuller) been mostly forgotten. So, for instance, she juxtaposes the life and career of Harriet Beecher Stowe, famously the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with that of Harriet Jacobs, also famously the author of the 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In another chapter, she contrasts Janice Raymond, the notoriously anti-trans feminist and author of The Transsexual Empire, with Sandy Stone, the trans musician, artist, and performer. Stone wrote a famous rebuttal to feminists like Raymond titled The “Empire” Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto. You get the drift. It is an interesting exercise that illustrates the power differentials between, for instance, Black or brown women and white women. Schuller reveals no stories about herself, but we are given several about the women she writes about: stories about marginalization or fame, triumph over adversity, liberation and the loss of freedom. In the process, despite her lofty aims and stinging words, Schuller does not offer any real, incisive critiques of white feminist power. She even replicates the power dynamics that oppressed the non-white women in the first place.
Schuller is eager to present the lives of the women she writes about as easily digestible Lessons for Today’s Feminists (a TED Talk title if ever there was one) and herself as the Grand Teller of Tales. In doing so, she pathologizes them and evokes ethnic stereotypes. Consider, for instance, the chapter “Settler Mothers and Native Orphans: Alice C. Fletcher and Zitkala-Ša.” Alice C. Fletcher was the white anthropologist who helped pass the Dawes Act of 1887: the legislation ended communal property ownership among Indigenous peoples and imposed private ownership. It resulted in further incursions of the state into Indigenous life and rationalized the brutal separation of children from their families in an effort to “educate” them out of their ancestral ways. Zitkala-Ša was a Yankton Dakota writer and activist who wrote about her experience of being ripped from her mother as a child. Schuller’s chapter on her begins, “Before eight-year-old Zitkala- Ša heard about the big red apples in the east, she ran free over the prairie and rolling green hills of southeastern South Dakota. Once finished with her morning’s work sewing her own beaded designs on buckskin or helping her mother dry fruits or meat for winter, she bounded out into the slopes that ascended behind their canvas wigwam.” And so on.
Schuller is drawing from Zitkala-Ša’s various accounts of her life, but she is also crafting a story that relies on the stereotypical image of the Native American child running free in nature. Zitkala-Ša may have been that, but she was also possessed of unconventional views and practices on and around marriage, for instance. She studied violin at the New England Conservatory of Music and even wrote an opera, the first by a Native American. She was a woman with multiple talents and a fiery and contentious spirit, but all that is made secondary to her essentialized identity and, worse, Schuller renders her a forgotten woman. Schuller concludes:
“[W]hat little remained of her legacy was largely obscured by the settler norms she so fiercely resisted. While the New York Times published a brief obituary mentioning ‘Mrs. R. T. Bonnin’s’ work in Indian rights [referring to her English name], her own death certificate merely read ‘Gertrude Bonnin from South Dakota—Housewife.’”
This gives the impression that Zitkala-Ša remains in obscurity, and that it is Schuller who resurrects her forgotten history. But in fact, Zitkala- Ša has been known and written about for a while now: the National Women’s History Project named an entire month after her in 1997, there was a Venusian crater named after her in 2006, and an Arlington County, Virginia, park named after Henry Clay was renamed in her honor in 2020. Google even dedicated one of its doodles to her on February 22, 2021. But of course, to render Zitkala-Ša a sad, lonely, forgotten figure only advances Schuller’s project. If a primary problem with white feminism is that it has “claimed the most attention,” then Schuller’s project of describing Zitkala-Ša’s legacy as forgotten is part of that problem.
Sandy Stone receives a similar treatment: at the end of the chapter on her, Schuller describes how Stone becomes emotional reading her own work: “Sobs interspersed her words. She had dreamed of one day being part of a community of theorists—and now she was among hundreds and hundreds.” The effect is meant to be moving and in a way, yes, it is, but why end there? Stone is also an internationally recognized scholar, activist, and performer. Why reduce a lifetime of achievements to a single emotional moment? The Sad Trans Woman is surely a story we, hurtling toward the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, can dispense with: it is, after all, really only another side of the Evil Trans Woman stereotype. Schuller implicitly positions herself as the white feminist who gives Stone a way to exist, to be. Let us be blunt: Schuller here is the White Savior.
But whiteness has a way of gliding about, sometimes imperceptibly.
Stone’s presence in the book raises yet another thorny issue that’s quickly papered over: her identity as a white woman. While, certainly, Stone’s long journey as a trans woman and public figure is notable, she remains white throughout. If the book is a critique of white feminism, why pretend that Stone might not benefit from, dare we say, white privilege? At no point does Schuller acknowledge the advantages that her racial identity gave Stone: her whiteness is not even acknowledged. Instead, in this same chapter, Schuller digresses into a tokenistic account of the trans activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera (one Black, the other Puerto Rican) and the radical political collective Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) that they founded. This is an important part of queer history, but it deserves to be more than a distraction from the racial identity of the white woman at the center. Instead, Stone’s whiteness gains cover under an emotional rendition of her life story and by a detour into Black trans revolutionary activism. There needs to be more work on trans histories and politics, in all their complexity, everywhere—but tossing a section on two well-known trans women of color into a chapter that ignores the whiteness of its central subject does no one any good.
Whiteness, like an undying hydra, emerges again, in the complete absence of Asian women. In a book that claims to be against white feminism and to instantiate alternative histories, the invisibility of a significant part of the U.S. population, one with many feminists, is startling but not surprising. Asian American history in the United States challenges the easy dichotomies on which The Trouble with White Women relies. For Schuller’s simplistic worldview of oppression to work, she has to present history in much less complicated ways: enslaved versus slaveholders, colonized versus colonizers. To include Asian Americans would bring in currents of geography, empire(s), and complicated migration patterns as well power dynamics that resist the Black-white dichotomy on which she relies: in the United Kingdom, the Caribbean, and Africa, Asians have been variously described as Black or “colored,” their varying histories sometimes tethered to indentured labor patterns, sometimes not. The earliest Indian immigrants were sometimes classified as white, depending on their skin color. The U.S. Census still counts Middle Eastern and North African people as white, despite protests from both groups. Race is a construct, and whiteness is as constructed as any other racial category. For the purpose of Schuller’s grand project, “white” needs to be a solid wall against which she can fling her critiques. But bring in the Asians (or the Middle Easterners or the North Africans) and all that goes to hell. Whiteness proves to be fungible.
What, in the end, do these books—and these stories—give us as a solution? There can be no doubt that white feminism, in its control of politics and pursestrings, remains an intractable problem, taking up space and resources that only support losing propositions. Hillary Clinton, we might recall, saw no reason why people should vote for her other than the fact that she was running against Trump: after decades and several “waves” of feminism, the best argument that white feminism could give us was, “Just because.” (Over Liz Truss, let us draw a veil.)
Sure, both Zakaria and Schuller gesture vaguely toward “capitalism” as a problem, but, these days, when even Tucker Carlson occasionally cosplays as an anti-capitalist, who doesn’t? Zakaria’s solutions echo well-worn rhetoric:
“Finally, white feminists must accept that true solidarity, where all races of women interact at a level of parity, means accommodating and valuing many different kinds of knowledge and expertise, first and foremost the kind that comes from lived experience.”
It’s hard not to read these words and wonder, with a sinking feeling, if this isn’t just the founding manifesto for yet another feminist NGO.
Schuller offers this: “White feminism cannot become truly inclusive of women of color, trans and disabled people, and the poor, for its politics are fundamentally at odds with their survival.” Here, again, she manipulatively erases the white feminists who are among the poor, the trans and disabled people—whose whiteness may grant them privileges (and even make them racist!). Schuller offers little more than something like the politics of the Nice White Lady in the suburbs whose lawn is filled with Black Trans Lives Matter signs, with nary an actual Black trans person in sight.
How do we produce different accounts of white feminism and its problems? What if Zakaria did not include her personal stories but, for instance, began with how DAWN and the Indian feminists affiliated with it contested the international NGO-driven “feminist” agenda and redirected it to better fit the needs of rural Indian women (this is in fact what happened, as she points out in the book, but we’re not given too many details)? A chapter exploring such dynamics within the Indian context, a narrative (not a story) of actual resistance to white feminism, would be a fascinating one. What if Zakaria revealed nothing at all about her personal traumas?
Locating essential critiques and analyses around trauma and personal stories is politically troubling because it demands that women of color constantly expose their emotional innards to the world. If a reader cannot understand the necessity for change without the writer proving that, say, domestic violence is actually traumatic, why even bother with them? Zakaria and Schuller rely on empathy, but how might we create a politics of change without relying on making people feel bad for women?
Stories get us nowhere. Consider the #MeToo movement: full of stories, but entirely disconnected from any demand for structural or systemic change. It has so far been an abject failure, with no real gains for the millions of women who continue to be harassed in mid- or low-level jobs, inside or outside the glare and blare of Hollywood. For decades, we cried and related the stories of women denied abortions, and look where we are. For too long, feminism has relied on trying to gain empathy for women: we need to divest from storytelling as a strategy.
Instead of stories, we need political will and analysis. The opposite of white feminism is not a rainbow card that inserts different women of color in their place (although that also needs to happen). If left politics is to survive—and feminism can only survive if it is a struggle taken up by the Left—it needs to believe in the power of its own abstractions.
In A Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade keeps death at bay by telling stories every night until the king falls in love with her and makes her his queen. For too long, women of color and other marginalized people have vomited out their tales of trauma and woe, desperately hoping to gain the minimum of resources from uncaring and callous systems.
The time has come to stop telling our stories, to stop asking for empathy, and to simply demand systemic changes. The time has come to rise up and kill the King. And the Queen.
Yasmin Nair would like to thank Alison Dean for a conversation on the Ear to the Pavement podcast, on these two books, that greatly influenced this piece. You can listen to that here.